Afghan Conflict Update – April 2021

General Scott Miller, commander of the NATO Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, meets with Afghan President Ghani in September 2018.

News, analysis, and commentary about the war in Afghanistan. Topics include security, ANDSF, Resolute Support, peace negotiations, US and international withdrawal, governance, development, podcasts, videos, and more.

Afghan News Summary

President Biden announced the decision that the United States would depart Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. This date is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. NATO very quickly followed suit indicating that they will depart as well. It appears that most troops will be gone by mid-summer 2021. The US has pushed a ‘security package’ into Afghanistan and the surrounding region to ensure a safe and orderly departure of its forces.

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Security

The Taliban continue to conduct a high level of violence not only in the countryside but against major installations. On April 7, 2021 the insurgents attacked Kandahar airfield, one of the few occasions that the Taliban have attacked places where US personnel are based- no U.S. troops were injured. Militant attacks in Afghanistan were up 37 percent this past quarter. The insurgents continue to pressure government forces across the country. The insurgents have expanded the territory that they control or influence – attacking isolated rural checkpoints and moving closer to district and provincial capitals. Violence in Afghanistan’s large cities has increased significantly – due to more crime, rising urbanization, ambitious warlords, Taliban-controlled areas closer to urban areas, and other factors.

Travel Advisory. On April 27, 2021 the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan issued an updated travel advisory. The current travel advisory level is at “Level 4: Do Not Travel.” The embassy cites COVID-19, crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, and armed conflict in all areas of Afghanistan as matters of concern. It is advising U.S. citizens to depart Afghanistan as soon as possible on available commercial flights. The embassy has also ordered the departure of U.S. government employees whose embassy functions can be performed elsewhere.

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Taliban

A Taliban Victory. The withdrawal agreement with the US has placed a certain victory into the hands of the insurgents. The Islamist group was able to secure the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan. This, despite the fact that the Taliban failed to end its cooperation with al-Qaeda, has not reduced the level of violence, and did not hold meaningful peace discussions with the Afghan government. “Unconditional U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan a Major Victory for Taliban, Analysts Say”, Gandhara Blog, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, April 16, 2021.

Taliban Judges. It is a well-known fact that many Afghans in remote areas that are controlled or under the influence of the Taliban prefer the Taliban courts over the corrupt and inefficient Afghan government judicial system. The Taliban have every intention of including their court system in the new Afghan government to come. “Taliban’s deputy leader stresses importance of judges in the Islamic emirate”, FDD’s Long War Journal, April 23, 2021.

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ANDSF

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces are struggling to keep the Taliban at bay. While they hold the major cities and government strongholds they are tied down in a defensive posture. Efforts to recapture territory lost in 2020 have been mixed. The 300,000 plus security force has a significant turnover every year – losing battlefield experience and requiring the training of new recruits. It has a lot of expensive equipment (aircraft, artillery, vehicles, etc.) but the maintenance and logistical problems keep much of unused and in questionable condition. Certainly the ANDSF has some brave fighters but overall the force lacks commitment, discipline, and morale that the Taliban have.

Afghan Security Forces Collapse? The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and security ministries will require continued US and international support if they are to avoid collapse. General McKenzie, the U.S. Central Command chief, said this much to Congress on Thursday, April 22, 2021. He is also worried about the ability of the ANDSF to protect the US Embassy in Kabul. “The Afghan military will collapse without some US help, says top general in the Middle East”, Military Times, by Lolita Baldor, April 22, 2021. Not everyone is a pessimist on the ANDSF – Zalmay Khalizad, the US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, says that the Afghan security forces shouldn’t be underestimated. (VOA News, Apr 27, 2021).

ASFF. With the withdrawal of U.S. and other international military forces on the near horizon the importance of continued funding of the ANDSF and the security ministries will grow. The Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF) is the main method of funding the 350,000 man security force. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has documented year in and year out the inability of the United States to provide adequate oversight on funding to Afghanistan. This will become even more problematic with the U.S. departure – almost ensuring ever-more growing corruption and ineffectiveness within the Afghan government.

Maintenance Issues. The vast majority of the maintenance performed on the air platforms of the Afghan Air Force (AAF) is provided by contractors. The decision to replace the Mi-17s with UH-60s in the Afghan Air Force will now become a move that will hurt the Afghan’s ability to use its Air Force effectively. The AAF had the ability to maintain the simpler Soviet-era helicopter but it is struggling with the more complex Black Hawk. The ground vehicle maintenance programs of the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan National Army (ANA) are also dependent on contractor logistics and supply chain support. With the loss of U.S. contractor support in Afghanistan the mobility capability of the ANA, ANP, and AAF will be severely diminished.

ALP Disbanded. The Afghan Local Police lost its US Funding last fall and was to be completely demobilized by the winter of 2021. The ALP personnel were to be integrated into the ANA-TF, the ANP, or retired. The transition was less than smooth and some districts are reported a decrease in the level of security. Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network examines in detail the transition of the ALP. “Disbanding the ALP”, AAN, April 15, 2021.

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Resolute Support

The international community will likely continue funding the Afghan government and its security forces; however, they are withdrawing their military personnel. Germany’s military is ending its training mission (as of April 30th) and is now focusing on withdrawing from Afghanistan. It has the second-largest contingent in Afghanistan – about 1,100 troops, many based at Camp Marmel in northern Afghanistan. Fifty-nine German troops died in Afghanistan during its almost twenty year engagement in the country.

CIA Director Visit. William Burns, the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recently visited Kabul in mid-April. One topic that was probably in his discussions with Afghan officials was the CIA-supported Counter Terrorism Pursuit Teams that are currently located in several provinces. The CTPTs are likely to be handed over to Afghan control – to the National Directorate of Security (NDS). (Khaama Press, Apr 24, 2021)

New Cdr for TAAC-C. There is a new commander for the NATO-led Train, Advise, Assist Command – Capital in Kabul. Turkish Brigadier General Selcuk Yurtsizoglu has assumed command of TACC-C. Turkey has a 600-strong contingent in Afghanistan. (Ariana News, Apr 2, 2021).

Operation Neptune Spear – Ten Years Ago. In May 2011 U.S. Navy SEALs flew at night on helicopters into Pakistan to a compound very near a Pakistani military facility and killed Osama bin Laden. Then Vice Admiral William McRaven was the commander of JSOC at the time and he is interviewed on the operation and his involvement by Nicholas Rasmussen about the UBL raid. CTC Sentinel, April – May 2021. Ex CIA chief John Brennan provides his perspective on the decision to go after OBL in Pakistan. (France 24, Apr 26, 2021).

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Peace Negotiations

Withdrawal Weakens Afghan Govt at Peace Talks. The position of the Afghan government has significantly weakened at the negotiating table. It no longer will have the military might of the international community to support its security forces.

Prospects for Peace. Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor, is interviewed by Husain Haqqani, the Director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute about what the road to peace looks like in Afghanistan. Read the transcript – “Prospects for Peace: A Conversation with Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor”, Hudson Institute, March 23, 2021.

Withdrawal

A lot of the current news cycle on Afghanistan is about whether or not President Biden’s decision to withdraw military forces from Afghanistan is the right or wrong decision. It is interesting to see the US politics work this issue once again. When then-President Trump announced the troop drawdown and withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021 he got criticized by the Democrats and lauded by many Republicans. It seems that the change of leadership makes a difference. The Democrats are all (or mostly) on board and a lot of Republicans have decided that the country is at risk for withdrawing. (Editor’s note: Don’t ask for facts of figures . . . as I have none. Just an observation based on my readings. I have been wrong before).

Mini-Surge to Afghanistan. The Pentagon is sending additional military assets to Afghanistan on a short-term basis to ensure a safe departure for the troops currently there. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (aircraft carrier) is having its deployment extended. Two B-52H Stratofortress bombers joined some already deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. There are reports that an AC-130 has been pushed forward to the region (likely to join those that may already be there). Additional troops are going in to assist with the logistical effort of moving troops and equipment out of Afghanistan and provide security. A large contingent from the 75th Ranger Regiment is in Afghanistan to provide security during the phase out of US troops. There already were elements of the 75th in country as part of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). US Army Central Command has stated that some High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) are moving to Afghanistan to support the drawdown.

Contractors Leaving as Well. The non-military US personnel and other foreign nationals are in the process of dealing with contract modifications and with major logistics efforts. There are close to 17,000 contractors in Afghanistan that provide services ranging from security, logistics, transportation, and aircraft maintenance. Much of the equipment of the ANDSF is heavily reliant on contractor support.

Tough to Withdraw. Ryan Baker and Jonathan Schroden explain the complex problems (political, tactical, and logistical) associated with a withdrawal from Afghanistan. A quick withdrawal comes with high costs of many types. What is more likely to occur is a more gradual withdrawal at some point in the future. “Why Is It So Tough to Withdraw From Afghanistan?”, War on the Rocks, April 8, 2021.

And Afghan Interpreters? There are many Afghan conflict observers that note the U.S. State Department’s failure to properly implement the U.S. Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program. This was designed to help Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who are in danger of being killed as a result of their service to the U.S. government as translators, interpreters, or in other civilian jobs. The program has been plagued with bureaucratic inefficiencies and lack of concern by State officials. A new television series, The United States of Al, on CBS highlights the plight (its fiction) of an Afghan interpreter who finds his way to America and lives with his former Marine friend. Read more in “The Costs of Working with the Americans in Afghanistan: The United States’ Broken Special Immigrant Visa Process”, Watson Institute, Brown University, April 5, 2021, PDF, 20 pages. See also “Fulfilling Our Duty to Afghan and Iraqi Interpreters is a Matter of Honor – and of National Security”, Modern War Institute at West Point, April 13, 2021.

The Dubai Safe Haven. It isn’t just members of the international community who are planning and preparing for their departure. Dubai has long been a vacation destination for the Afghan elite – with the moving of money by corrupt officials to the Middle East enclave to purchase expensive villas. This corrupt movement of Afghan treasure will certainly increase as corrupt government officials and businessmen decide to find their fortunes and homes elsewhere while smuggling gold and cash out of their home country. “What Tajik Gold Smuggling Bust Tells Us About Afghanistan”, The Diplomat, April 27, 2021.

Post Withdrawal

Can the ANDSF Hold? The Afghan government forces have been in the lead for security since 2014 with the departure of a significant number of international forces from the country. However the ANDSF relies on the U.S. military and contractors for maintenance, logistics, and close air support.

Afghan SOF. The one bright spot within the ANDSF are the elite special operations soldiers and police. The Army’s Special Operations Command, the General Command Police Special Units, and the Special Mission Wing of the AAF have been the main offensive punch for the security forces. They will likely continue to be the ‘go to’ force for the Afghan government. Hopefully CFSOCC-A has instituted some ‘remote advising‘ capability where it has established ‘touch points’ within the Afghan special operations community.

Continued Air Support? John Kirby, the Pentagon Press Secretary, stated on April 17, 2021 that the Biden administration has not decided whether US air support to Afghan government troops will continue after the US withdrawal. Bombers and strike aircraft could fly missions from neighboring countries or from the Gulf. Unless based in Pakistan or Central Asia the flight paths will be long and involve overflight approvals from regional countries.

Al Qaeda – Hasn’t Gone Away. One of the provisions in the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement signed in February 2021 was that the Taliban would deny sanctuary to al Qaeda. Unfortunately, the terrorist group still has an enduring presence in Afghanistan despite repeated claims by the Taliban that the group is no longer found in the country. An analysis of al Qaeda media reveals that the group is active in 18 of 34 provinces in Afghanistan. “Analysis: Al Qaeda continues to operate throughout Afghanistan”, FDD’s Long War Journal, April 8, 2021.

Islamic State – Still a Threat After Withdrawal? Kathy Bannon reports on concerns that the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) will find space to grow after a US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Although the Taliban say they will not allow ISIS to operate in Afghanistan – they have been actively fighting ISIS – there are concerns that they may not actually be able to counter ISIS activity post-withdrawal. “Islamic State degraded in Afghanistan but still poses a threat”, Associated Press, April 27, 2021. Although the ISKP is still in business – it is operating more as a clandestine underground than as a guerrilla force that holds territory. The ISKP is also losing members to a revitalized Pakistani Taliban.

CT in the Future? One of the main reasons for the continued presence of the United States and the international community in Afghanistan was to ensure that there would be no sanctuary for terrorist groups that could plan, coordinate, and support strikes against the U.S. homeland or in other countries around the world. However, the Taliban have not sufficiently distanced itself from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (although severely diminished) still exists in Afghanistan. The vexing problem, with loss of bases in Afghanistan, is how the U.S. can conduct counterterrorism operations against organization in Afghanistan. Many suggest that the U.S. stand-off capability of drones, manned air platforms, special operations forces can fill that capability gap. There is the possibility that establishing a U.S. CT ‘platform’ in Central Asia (perhaps setting up at K2 in Uzbekistan again?) may take place. However, at this point in time there are no agreements with any countries in the region (Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, or Uzbekistan) for basing rights. See “Afghanistan War: How can the West fight terrorism after leaving?”, BBC News, April 24, 2021.

The CIA’s Intelligence Network and Withdrawal. The Central Intelligence Agency’s extensive intelligence and covert action network in Afghanistan may begin to unravel over the next few years. It is almost certain that the CIA’s footprint will downsize and the intelligence gathering process will suffer some consequences. However, there are some options available to the spy agency but there are going to be some risk to the intelligence process “Afghanistan Withdrawal Will Likely Dismantle a CIA Intelligence Network Built Up Over 20 Years”, CNN, April 18, 2021..

Return of the Warlords? The country of Afghanistan has a long history of regional warlords who control militias. While they have never really gone away their importance subsided a bit after 2001. However with the departure of international forces the warlords are now remobilizing their old militias in anticipation of a new era of bloody conflict in Afghanistan – and a return to chaos and civil war. Most of these groups are fearful of a resurgence of the Taliban and are doubtful of the ability of the Afghan government security forces to defend their respective regions. Frud Bezhan provides insight into the likelihood of the re-emergence of an era of warlords in Afghanistan in “Afghanistan Sees Resurgence of Warlords, In Familiar Echo of Civil War”, Gandhara Blog, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, April 22, 2021.

Another Civil War? When the Red Army departed Afghanistan in 1989 the Afghan government managed to hold on for a few more years. But eventually it lost out to the Mujahadeen forces. Will the current conflict evolve into a civil war? Many observers seem to think that is a strong possibility.

Regional Influences. China’s troubled Xinjiang province shares a border with Afghanistan and that could be a future source of concern if Muslim Uyghur separatists establish a foothold in the Wakhan Corridor. China has complicated political and economic interests in Afghanistan; however; it has maintained a low-keyed approach with an eye ensuring that Afghanistan does not become more unstable. Iran has been expressing its desire for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan for years. But that may bring more troubles to Iran if a hard-core Sunni government takes power in Kabul and Afghan Shia refugees cross over Iran’s border. The security vacuum may very well be filled by Tehran.

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Commentary

Australia Departure. Around 30,000 Australian Defence Force personnel served in Afghanistan and 41 died there. As of April 2021 Australia had 80 military personnel in Afghanistan. Brendan Nicholson, the executive editor of The Strategist, provides some commentary on Australia’s contributions to the long war and on how the war changed the Australian Army and the entire defence force. “Australian Army profoundly changed by two decades of war in Afghanistan”, The Stategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, April 16, 2021.

Why Staying the Course is Folly. Paul Poast, book author and associate professor at the University of Chicago, believes that the United States has been engaged in ‘imperial policing’ the last few decades . . . and that it isn’t working. “Imperial Policing Redux: The Folly of Staying the Course in Afghanistan”, Modern War Institute at West Point, April 8, 2021.

SOF Aviation Advising Missions. Tobias Switzer, a US Air Force combat aviation advisor and FAO, writes about the ad hoc nature of the way the US military organizes its advisors and resources to conduct aviation security force assistance. In 2017 Switzer served as commander of a special operations advisor team subordinate to the Special Operations Advisory Group that advised the Afghan 777 Special Mission Wing – Afghanistan’s special operations aviation unit. He provides a detailed account of the air advising effort in Afghanistan – the good and the bad. “Learning to Fly: How the US Military Can Fix the Problems Plaguing Aviation Advising Missions”, Modern War Institute, April 1, 2021.

America’s Four Mistakes in Afghanistan. Amin Saikal outlines four things that the US did wrong in Afghanistan. 1) inability to comprehend the complexity of the country, 2) did not secure a credible and effective partner in Afghanistan, 3) didn’t ‘sell’ the invasion or occupation to Afghanistan (or its own constituency), and 4) Washington has learned little from its past experiences in fighting national insurgencies. “Leaving Afghanistan and Why America Doesn’t Win Wars”, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), April 21, 2021.

CIA in Afghanistan – A Little History. The Central in Intelligence Agency has had a long history of involvement in Afghanistan. But there are a lot of misconceptions about the CIA activities in Afghanistan. “Western leftists think the CIA created al Qaeda by helping the mujahideen shoot down Russian helicopters. They’re wrong.” Emran Feroz, a journalist and author, explains in “What the CIA Did (and Didn’t Do) in Soviet-Occupied Afghanistan”, Newslines Magazine, April 26, 2021.

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Governance and Politics

Afghan Govt Accepts Withdrawal Decision. The Afghan government has put on a brave face when discussing the leaving of the United States and other international forces. President Ghani says he regrets the departure but he has confidence in the ability of the ANDSF to maintain stability in the country.

Ghani’s Government Plan. The Afghan president has agreed to the formation of an interim government in Afghanistan and has put forth the basics of his plan during the Heart of Asia / Istanbul Process conference. Thomas Ruttig looks at the Ghani plan’s outline in “Conditions-based Interim Government: President Ghani presents a preview of his peace plan”, Afghanistan Analysts Network, April 1, 2021.

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Economy, Development, Society

COVID Update. The Afghan government is proceeding with plans to vaccinate 60 percent of the population by the end of 2022. To do this, the government will have to rely on international humanitarian organizations to reach areas that are remote and /or under Taliban control. “Afghanistan’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plans cross conflict front lines”, The New Humanitarian, April 7, 2021.

Timber Cutting, Taliban, and the Korengal Valley. Green Beret Captain Jim Gant was one of the first Americans to go into the Korengal Valley and quickly became involved in an economic dispute between the Korengalis and Afghan police officials who were representing the interests of commercial businessmen profiting from the timber industry. Gant’s SF team was followed by a 19th SFG (A) detachment, and then subsequent deployments of Marine, Army, and troops from NATO countries. The long and costly fight in the Korengal Valley had begun – and its origin was due, in part, to the timber industry. “How the U.S. Military Got Whipsawed by an Afghan Timber War”, The Daily Beast, by Wesley Morgan, March 22, 2021.

Mining for Gold (Video). Stuart Greer narrates a video about how Afghans of Badakhshan province are risking their lives to illegally mine gold in the mountains. Provincial authorities say that the Taliban are involved in the illicit hunt for gold. The 3-min long video explains the mining process and how the government is attempting to stop the illegal mining activity. “Digging and Desperate: Afghans Risk Lives to Illegally Mine Gold”, Radio Free Afghanistan, April 20, 2021.

The Vanishing Nomadic Life. The nomadic heritage of the Kuchis has been almost erased due to decades of war, competition for pastures, international borders, and the pressures of society. The Kuchis are one of the most marginalized groups in Afghanistan with little help from the Afghan government. Many Kuchis miss the wandering lifestyle of moving their caravans and animals from Pakistan (winter stay) to the pastures of the Afghan central highlands in the summer. “Afghan Nomads Mourn a Vanishing Way Of Life”, Radio Free Afghanistan, April 8, 2021.

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Books, Reports, and Publications

SIGAR Report – April 2021. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has published latest quarterly report to Congress on April 30, 2021. The 224-page PDF has a wealth of information on its oversight activities, security, governance, economic and social development, and more.
https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2021-04-30qr.pdf

DoD Report – Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan. The Department of Defense December 2020 report (published in April 2021) provides an assessment of the situation in Afghanistan during June – November 2020 timeframe. (SOF News, Apr 26, 2021).

2021 High Risk List. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction published its latest ‘high risk list’ earlier this year. It reveals that Afghanistan reconstruction faces multiple threats in the future with the withdrawal of US and international forces. This report provides an independent assessment of the various risks now facing US reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. SIGAR, PDF, 84 pages.
https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/spotlight/2021-High-Risk-List.pdf

Battle for Marzar-e Sharif (2001). In the fall of 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the United States on 0/11, small detachments of U.S Special Forces infiltrated into Afghanistan to link up with fighters of the Northern Alliance. One of these SF teams (along with a CIA operative) took part in the battle for Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. (JSOU, Apr 2021).

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Podcasts, Webcasts, and Videos

Webcast – Institution Building in Afghanistan. A recent webcast aired that introduces the book entitled Institution Building in Weak States by Andrew Radin and explores the implications for Afghanistan. Radin, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, applies the findings from his book to address the challenge of effective institution-building in Afghanistan in the context of the current peace process. April 16, 2021, one hour. Stimson South Asia Program.

Podcast – America’s War in Afghanistan. Wesley Morgan, a journalist and book author, is interviewed about his new book The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley, and on the future of Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. The Caravan Notebook, Hoover Institution, April 20, 2021.

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Photo / Image: General Scott Miller, commander of the NATO Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, meets with Afghan President Ghani in September 2018.


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